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Trattoria Neapolis, Pasadena’s new Italian restaurant, has just made my list of favorites in the South Lake District (this esteemed list also includes Cham Bistro and Pie ‘n Burger in case you were wondering). There are plenty of reasons to love this restaurant. For one, the ambiance is fantastic with high ceilings and natural lighting on the patio. Two, they have a wood burning oven. And, three, they make everything from scratch, from bread to salumi.
They also have an impressive drink program, full of American and Italian classics. Prosecco cocktails abound and the wine list is extensive. If you’re a beer drinker like me, they even have an in-house beer sommelier to help you choose from local and Italian brews. Pictured here is The Doctor, a smooth and smokey mix of rye and Italian bitters.
I’m such a sucker for those giant ice cubes.
Antipasti options include hand-crafted cured meats, Sicilian meatballs and wood-grilled octopus. We went for the Arancini with lobster and pickled fennel. The crunch was perfect, but the flavor wasn’t as intense as it could have been, causing the lemon aioli to be the peak of the dish. This is often the case with arancini, but I did appreciate its creamy texture and the sizable chunks of lobster.
Pregnant women are warned not to eat cold cuts. It seems that there’s a bacteria called listeria, which lurks in lunch meats, just waiting to wreak havoc on the compromised immune system of every gestating woman. Okay, it’s actually kind of rare, but in America, it’s treated like the plague.
And I’ll admit, I headed the warning. I ate maybe two turkey sandwiches the whole 9 months and promptly freaked out both times. So you can imagine how pumped I was to chow down on my first anxiety-free post-natal sub.
I gave the honor to the Italian sub from Eagle Rock Italian Bakery & Deli. The sandwiches at this Colorado Boulevard mainstay (it’s been around for over 40 years) is one of the best you’ll find east of Bay Cities. Baked fresh in-house daily, the bread has that crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside quality that can really make a sandwich worthwhile while the balance of freshly cut salami, ham, mortadella and provolone cheese takes it home.
If you revile “the hipster”, don’t worry. You aren’t doomed to confront swarms of them at Maximiliano. Even though Highland Park’s new Italian restaurant, with its modern decor and valet stand, sits a little conspicuously on the 99-Cent-Store end of York Boulevard, it still manages to attract a mixed-bag crowd and not look (or feel) ridiculous.
Attribute that to the fact that owner Andre Guerrero, also responsible for The Oinkster in Eagle Rock, isn’t some carpetbagger restaurateur—he grew up in Glassell Park and seems to have nothing but love and keen understanding for LA’s northeast corner. Consequently, Maximiliano, from menu to waiter, brims with authenticity.
The tagline for the menu at Maximiliano is “kinda old school Italian”. Translation: Guerrero is doing here what he’s known to do best, which is take accessible (Italian-American, in this case) favorites and give them upgraded oomph. For instance, the Meatballs Pomodoro starter looks like your basic meatballs in red sauce, but these are made with a mix of veal, beef, pork and pancetta for juicy, fork-slides-through-like-butter results.
This extra effort also comes to play with the pasta. According to our waiter, all but one of the pastas is made in house, which was evident with the spaghetti and mussels special we tried. Cooked al dente, the spaghetti was able to stand up to spicy chorizo and a smoky tomato broth that we made sure to soak up with our pizza crust.
When it comes to Italian, I’m pretty flexible. Sure, I love a beautifully crafted plate of handmade pasta that conveys old world sensibilities or modern restraint, but there’s also something to be said for an over-the-top, heaping bowl of spaghetti that’s been sauced with a heavy hand. Add a dimly lit dining room, red vinyl booths, tchotchke décor, snazzy chandeliers and a house band playing Van Morrison covers, and I’m sold.
Eagle Rock’s Colombo’s is that kind of place exactly. Loved by locals since 1954, this Italian Steakhouse is total throwback, complete with a long, narrow bar that serves up stiff martinis and $7 carafes of house Chianti or Lambrusco. It’s also a rather raucous place to be on a Friday night, when the volume is high, almost every seat is occupied by a devotee, and the wait for a table is about 30 minutes without a reservation.
The menu is what you’d expect—there’s a wedge salad, plenty of steaks, Chicken Cacciatore, mix-and-match pasta and sauces, baked cheese-laden specialties and Spumoni Cake.They even offer something called a “meatball steak,” pizza and 7 ravioli variations.
Being the standard by which I judge all “red sauce” Italian restaurants, Spaghetti Bolognese was my entrée choice. Colombo’s rendition is rich and meat heavy with sweet-bold flavor and a touch of cream. The bottom of the bowl is filled with sauce, first, then topped with more spaghetti than you would ever want to eat in one sitting. A sprinkling of fresh basil makes it pretty. Kind of perfect.
The rest of the food was fine. The corn chowder soup was no big deal, the Caprice Salad—fresh mozzarella, roma tomatoes and cucumbers—was a nice start, and the linguini and clams was good enough. Averaged out with the entire experience, I’d say Colombo’s is a great place to slurp some spaghetti and take in a heavy dose of mid-century kitsch.
1833 Colorado Boulevard (Map It)
Eagle Rock, CA 90041
“Do you do sandwiches?”
“What, you never had my sandwich?” said the older man with an Italian accent behind the counter.
“No,” Josh replied.
“Hey, get over here!” the man yelled to a guy looking at bottles of olive oil. “This guy’s never had my sandwich.”
“Oh,” said the olive oil guy, “he makes a good sandwich. No lettuce or tomatoes or anything, but he makes a good sandwich.”
“Trust me,” the Italian man said. “I’ll make you a good sandwich.”
So we did, and he did. The man’s name is Rosario, and he’s been behind the deli counter at Roma Market since 1955, the year his family moved to Pasadena from Sicily. The market, itself, is small strip mall affair, filled to the brim with fresh produce and a substantial array of imported Italian goods. The deli counter is tucked away and tiny, but it’s big enough to fit Rosario’s stool and a satisfying selection cheeses and meats.
Downtown LA is the last major obstacle between me and home on my daily west-to-east commute. Already battered by the indignities of the Santa Monica Freeway, I usually ditch the 110 and weave my way through the city streets instead. However traumatizing, this drive has proven a great tool for bringing restaurants to my attention.
One place I drive by and wonder about a lot is Zucca, so I was excited when I got an invite to try out the Italian restaurant’s new Piazza menu. The main perk of this al fresco service (menu is served on the patio) is that the large selection of small plates—antipasti, oven-fired pizzas, salads and pastas—are fairly inexpensive. Nothing over $12, all day from 11:30 to 9pm.
I’ve never really had much respect for lasagna. I blame it on the fact that I came of age in an era when it was perfectly acceptable to bring a tin of Stoffer’s to a potluck. Restaurant lasagnas, usually just assembled from jars and packages, never did much to help the cause either.
That’s not to say that I don’t eat it or enjoy it. But like an episode of Teen Mom, lasagna generally only appeals to me on the most base level. A very guilty pleasure of mine is the vegetable lasagna from Angelo’s in Alhambra, which is basically just a dish of sauce, cheese and a few veggies baked to bubbling-crispy-on-the-edges perfection.
Considering my history of lasagna derision, you can imagine my intrigue when I saw it on special at Osteria Mamma. I’ve been in love with “Mamma” Loredana Cecchinato’s cooking since La Buca was a hole in the wall, so I figured if anyone could clean up an Italian casserole, it’d be her. And it was. The lasagna at Osteria Mamma, like most of their dishes, impresses with its simplicity. The handmade noodles are thin and the ricotta is spread with restraint, giving the dish an almost delicate quality. The sweet sauce and meat keep it reasonably hearty.
All this is just proof of one thing: lasagna, I misjudged you.
P.S. As I was just saying in the comments, Osteria Mamma now has a liquor license, so while it’s more crowded, it’s also more lively. I think they’ve found their groove.
“Is this some kind of performance art?”
That’s the question Josh asked as we watched the staff at Mooi try—with the urgency of molasses—to seat a restaurant full of people for a 9 o’clock pre-fixe dinner service. The minutes ticked, some poor girl fell off the rickety wrought-iron chair she was made to sit in, and yet-to-be-seated patrons looked forlorn as we all waited for the restaurant to get its shit together.
It was a weird scene, but I wasn’t surprised. The reviews on Yelp, which rail on the aloof service, have been scathing (and I mean scathing) since Mooi opened last spring. Still, I’d heard great things about the food, and boy, do I love a pre-fixe. Plus, there have been reports that time might be running out for the raw/vegan restaurant, and I wanted a taste.
I’m glad I got one because the 4-course Italian meal by chef Anne Lee of New York’s Pure Food and Wine and Mooi owner Stephen Hauptfuhr really made up for the evening’s ramshackle start.
A block away from the pandemonium of Bottega Louie is the cozy and casual Colori Kitchen. Though I’m a fan of both restaurants, when I’m in the mood for Italian and Downtown, I tend to opt for the more accessible Colori. But it’s not just their “hole in the wall” appeal that lures me, there’s also the fresh pasta, the burrata, and the no-corkage fee BYOB policy—a trifecta of trattoria bliss.
The menu at Colori Kitchen is relatively small and refreshingly simple. Chef Luigi Barducci Contessi, Italian born and formerly the executive chef at Ca’ Brea, has created a menu that relies on flavor and quality without too much adornment. The enthusiastic yet no-frills execution is reminiscent of La Buca back before the expansion compromised it.
This burrata appetizer is a good example of the Colori approach. It’s just a few slices of the decadent cheese, garnished with salad and drizzled with olive oil. It’s not overdone or dressed up beyond recognition. Thank goodness because in the case of burrata, the cheese really should stand alone.
Colori makes a good ravioli. The night we went, they had a meat ravioli, filled with pork, chicken and veal (pictured at the top of this post), on special. The large pillows of ravioli were tender and the flavors of the different meats were surprisingly distinct. The mushroom sauce was rich but not overbearing, much like the creamy walnut sauce that covered this Pumpkin Ravioli. The crunch of the walnut pieces added a nice contrast to the soft texture of the pumpkin filling without going into the dreaded pumpkin pie territory. The whole dish had an unexpected lightness.
Ordering calamari steak is always a huge risk. A lot of times it’s chewy and overcooked, but that was not a problem here. This one had a melty quality, and the citrus added a zesty kick to the otherwise even flavor. The salad made it the perfect summer dish.
On a recent trip to Paso Robles, we were lucky to attend a pretty magical dinner at Venteux Vineyards in nearby Templeton. It was a beautiful, warm summer night made complete by Chef Eric Cioffi’s Tuscan menu. The delicious wine didn’t hurt either, and owners Scott and Bobbi Stetzle made sure it flowed and flowed.
Cioffi took a “locavore” approach to creating the rustic Italian dishes, which were served family style to about 30 guests on the old-timey porch of the vinyard’s b&b. Ninety percent of the ingredients came from farms within 10 or so miles of the winery. “Every time I do a dinner at Venteux, I try to meet a new face, a new farmer, a new friend,” Cioffi told me.
Cioffi is a self-taught amateur chef, but there was nothing amateur about his execution. The freshness, flavor and detail of this meal rivaled some of my most memorable food experiences, even in actual Tuscany. He simply says he prefers food with “soul”. Someone give this guy a restaurant already!
The first course was a Parpadelle with Duck Ragu. So delicious. Made with cherries steeped in Zin Alley port, the ragu was a heavenly mix of sweet and savory. The fresh pasta, which was hand rolled and cut, was as much of a main attraction—the chef credited its silky texture to “lots of yolk.”